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The perils of historical comparison and the dangerous origins of Putin’s ideology

Antonio Pattori discusses Putin's political ambitions and the use of history.

The distortion of historical memory for political gain by dictatorial regimes is not a radical innovation. Nations have been built and destroyed over twisted notions of historical events; from the German Dolchstoss myth to the fascistisation of Roman history by Mussolini’s regime, history will always be used as a political tool. Putin’s distortion of history as a justification for the invasion of Ukraine is merely the most recent iteration of this phenomenon. In his televised speech prior to the invasion, Putin denied the historical foundations of Ukraine, arguing that ‘Ukraine actually never had stable traditions of real statehood’. His lexicon deliberately manipulated history with the intention of denying Ukrainian sovereignty and accuse the largest captive area in European history of being in the grip of belligerent nazis. Unfortunately, these are not new claims, and have been tolerated by many intellectuals in the West. While demonstrably false, Putin’s accusations conceal ideological roots which do not originate with himself and require more careful analysis. Historical comparisons tend to be much more rhetorical than historically illuminating, and recent comparisons with the Second World War are equally misleading. 

The parallels employed, focusing primarily on the Czechoslovak crisis in 1938, are limiting and do not fully shed light on both the reasoning and response to Putin’s barbarous invasion of Ukraine. For that, the historian must look further. At face value, comparisons with Hitler’s Germany are valid. The charade of Putin’s meeting with the Russian Security Council was theatrical, and comparing Putin to a paranoid Hitler confronting his ministers would almost seem natural. Putin’s dressing down of advisors who seemed reluctant to support war in Ukraine holds the same megalomaniacal traits of Hitler’s dismissal of ministers, from General von Blomberg to Reichsminister von Neurath, after hesitance in supporting war preparations. Comparing the current crisis with 1938 is, however, superficial and misleading. Putin’s takeover of Crimea and de facto separation of the Donbass in 2014 may hold parallels with how the Munich Agreement of September 1938 separated the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia. In both cases, the annexation of parts of the country was followed by full invasion, with the exception that German troops reached Prague within six months. Instead, war in Donetsk and Luhansk has been waged for eight years. The decision not to defend Czechoslovakia, nonetheless, signalled a clear betrayal to obligations which numerous powers had towards Czechoslovakia’s regards, particularly the 1925 and 1935 treaties which respectively bound France and the Soviet Union to defend Czechoslovak territorial integrity.  This element of betrayal and obligation is lacking in Ukraine, and leaves NATO in a paralysed state as we are forced to watch the dismemberment of Ukraine without any action. 

While there is little appetite for war in Europe, the situation is very different from Britain and France’s decision not to interfere in ‘a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing’, as Chamberlain put it at the time. The lack of binding treaties between Ukraine and NATO leaves us without a viable option, with Ukraine being abandoned to a desperate fight against all odds. It is undeniable, however, that many in the West continue to apologetically side with the Kremlin’s amateur historical reasoning. 

Until recently, tabloids referred to the country as The Ukraine, underlining a continued misleading view that Ukraine was no more than a geographical expression. The 2021 essay Ukraine: Tragedy of a divided nation, by Jack F. Mallock, former US Ambassador to the USSR, reflects the persistence of these views. Mallock argued that ‘the fact is, Ukraine is a state but not yet a nation’, and that divisions clearly ran ‘along linguistic and cultural divides’. Mallock’s words mimic those uttered by Putin in his speech: ‘Ukraine is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space’. Mallock is just one of many intellectuals who have given an apologetic voice of approval to the denial of Ukrainian national sovereignty. 

For this reason, the case study of Germany’s Anschluss with Austria perhaps presents us with a more apt comparison. Austria had no defensive treaties with other powers, and was erroneously seen as an integral part of Großdeutschland – Greater Germany. Few contemplated succouring Austria. Worryingly, many actually tolerated the move as Germany’s expanding in its natural sphere, while Chamberlain reminded the House of Commons that ‘nothing could have arrested what has actually happened’. To make matters worse, the failure of Europe’s energy policy has left many countries to rely on Putin, mellowing reactions even further. These assumptions ought to be dispelled. While divisions do indeed exist, Ukraine has a rich history. Ukraine was at the centre of the medieval Kyivan Rus, and Voltaire wrote about the Ukrainian longing for freedom. Divisions are also much less prevalent amongst the new generation of post-Soviet Ukranians. While the 1991 Independence referendum saw large minorities opposing independence in the East, based primarily along linguistic and cultural lines – Crimea voted 42% against independence, while opposition to independence in Donetsk and Luhansk rested at 12% and 13% respectively – the situation has now massively shifted. The post 1992 generation, born outside of the Soviet sphere, has embraced Ukrainian statehood. Volodymyr Zelensky’s landslide majorities in virtually all oblasts in the 2019 election is a testament to this reality. 

History and the decline of Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union can teach us about Putin’s ideological aspirations. His intellectual origins lie in a reactionary attempt to roll back the end of Russian Imperialism. It is not coincidental that Putin has a bust of Peter the Great – who first conquered parts of Ukraine for Russia – in his office. The tsarist undertones are most evident. Most politicians tend to be in the grip of some defunct thinker. Instead, Putin’s philosopher, Alexander Dugin, is alive and still wields influence. Dugin proposes theories of Eurasianism and National Bolshevism, and, importantly, was an advisor to Sergey Naryshkin, a member of Putin’s party, current director of the Foreign Intelligence Service and President of the Russian Historical Society. To understand Putin’s actions requires an understanding of Dugin’s most famous work, The Foundations of Geopolitics: The Geopolitical Future of Russia (1997), which outlined the case for a new Russian Tsarist Eurasian Empire. 

According to Professor Timothy D. Synder, Dugin’s influence on Putin is similar to that of Carl Schmitt or Giovanni Gentile on Hitler and Mussolini. His methods for the realisation of a Russian Eurasian empire seem to have been well received by Putin. Dugin supports the ‘staging of an anti-American revolution’ to demolish the ‘universalism’ of Western values. In short, the objective is the changing of the international post-Cold War order. Putin evoked these beliefs in a 2007 speech in Munich, where he argued for the necessity to find a ‘decisive moment’ to move away from an America-led global system. To achieve this, Dugin recommended that Russia ‘support isolationist tendencies in American politics’, and the creation of diplomatic axes with Iran. Putin has followed such a recipe. According to Dugin, friendly relations with Germany are instead key for the dismemberment of NATO in European and Atlantic blocs. 

One only needs to look at Germany’s hesitance in the recent crisis to understand Putin’s attempt to secure this separation: within the German Social Democrats pro-Russian sentiments run rampant, exemplified by former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who was recently nominated for a directorship in Gazprom, and is the current chairman of the board of Nord Stream AG and of the Russian state oil company, Rosneft. Tellingly, Schröder blamed ‘the West’ for Putin’s 2008 invasion of the Georgian region of South Ossetia. Dugin’s theories are hence serving as inspiration to Putin and can teach us the reasoning behind the invasion. Dugin sees Ukraine as holding ‘no geopolitical meaning’ but vital for the creation of Moscow as a ‘third Rome’: a theological belief that Russia is the heir of the Roman Empire through its Byzantine roots, fusing imperial and ecclesiological narratives into a combustive Orthodox political theology. Kyiv’s ecclesiastical importance makes it symbolically essential to this misguided conception of history. Putin’s own 2021 five thousand word essay on Ukraine’s history mirrors Dugin’s ultranationalist eurasianism. In the article, Russia’s President wrote that Russia had been ‘robbed’ of its integral lands, citing religious unity as a reason for making the ‘true sovereignty of Ukraine possible only in partnership with Russia’. It is in this tsarist view of history that we may find Putin’s real ideological mission.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is undoubtedly a partial revanchist response to the loss of Russian influence over Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union. Historical parallels with Hitler’s Germany can illustrate how the West has reacted to the ongoing crisis, yet comparisons often present more differences than similarities. Putin is not only reacting to historical change but seeking to roll back developments which have occurred over centuries. Indeed, his speech outlined a rejection of Soviet policy as the alleged creator of Ukraine’s national identity. This view must be seen as the result of an ideological, as much as a geopolitical, programme. To this end, Dugin’s Eurasianist approach to China is instructive: in his 1997 work, he advocated for the demolition of China as a national entity. However, in a 2019 interview with Chinese state media, Dugin recanted his views, arguing that China can be useful for Russia’s attempt to deny Western ‘hegemony in defining universal standards’. Such an anecdote importantly conveys how Putin’s ideological perspective has malleably mutated to fit changing historical contexts with a view to alter the world order. For this reason, historical comparisons can reveal potential outcomes yet no hard facts. 

Debates have been waged over whether Putin’s actions were moved by mental instability, geopolitical calculations, or ideological convictions. The answer is probably a mixture of all of these. Putin alone knows whether he fully ascribes to this Eurasian political theology. What is certain is that, like most regimes before him, he has distorted history itself and mobilised it into action.

Image credits: Premier.gov.ru / CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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